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Athwart History

William F. Buckley was always playing his role, even over lunch at home.

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With his penchant for polysyllabics, that exotic vocabulary, and his other eccentricities of expression—the darting tongue, the rolling eyes, the predatory slouch—William F. Buckley Jr. reveled in his persona. When I rode the train up to Stamford one day last August for what turned out to be our final lunch—his son, Christopher, is an old college friend—Bill was very much Bill, talking with greedy pleasure, in that fabulously plummy accent of his, about one book he was finishing and another he couldn’t wait to start. At 81, he had just published his twentieth novel, and that doesn’t count the dozens of nonfiction volumes he churned out on subjects as various as sailing and anti-Semitism while hosting a weekly television show, batting out a newspaper column, and otherwise maintaining his celebrity status as the preeminent icon of American conservatism. He was, as always, at once being himself and nurturing the Buckley brand. He had slowed down—by last summer, he was well divested of the show, the speeches, control of the National Review—but he never stopped. His work kept him sharp, alive to new possibilities, even as his body betrayed him (at lunch, he could barely breathe), his contemporaries died (he was great friends with John Kenneth Galbraith, who departed two years ago), and his wife, Pat, herself also larger than life, last year led the way to whatever comes next.

Bill was always onstage, always playing to his public, even in private. He delighted in social contact and was exquisitely aware of his impact on others. (Only his wife ever outperformed him.) He enjoyed being famous, didn’t mind being a character, and had a clear sense of his place in history: as the godfather of the movement that produced Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, the man whose intellect and theatricality pushed mainstream right-wing thinking into political viability.

Not that he and I ever discussed his iconic stature in the 30-odd years I knew him. He was simply my friend’s dad, the guy who plied me—a 20-year-old college kid when we first met—with expensive brandy and Cuban cigars (“You should definitely inhale,” he mischievously advised) and made me feel at home when I joined small Christmas cruises on sailboats he and Pat chartered. He was, despite the argumentative reputation, enormously generous and kind. The epic flair for feuding—so well known to his TV audience, and to Gore Vidal—wasn’t on display at home, nor that avid appetite for attack. When it came to human failings, even heathen beliefs, he could be surprisingly open-minded. He had smoked marijuana (albeit in international waters, beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. law), favored the decriminalization of illegal drugs, and was tacitly tolerant of homosexuality (many gays graced his dinner table). He ended up opposing the war in Iraq. Many of his friends were liberal Democrats.

Before lunch last August, as we sat downing Pinot Grigio in his crimson music room, where he often played Bach suites on his harpsichord, he grilled me for news of my comings and goings. I said I was glad he was out of the hospital. “We were worried about you,” I said. “Oh yes?” he chuckled. “Were you getting ready to write my eulogy?” He was no doubt expecting many, and he was confident they’d be florid.

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